Cablegate: The First Lady's Visit to Egypt

Published: Wed 18 May 2005 06:26 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
Sensitive but unclassified. Please protect accordingly.
1. (SBU) Embassy Cairo warmly welcomes the visit of First
Lady Laura Bush to Egypt. This visit is an opportunity for
the U.S. to emphasize for the Egyptian public and its
leadership our concern over the essential societal issues of
education and literacy. Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak,
who has a well-earned prominent role in governmental and
non-governmental organizations focused in these areas, will
join Mrs. Bush for much of her program. The program will
also include an opportunity to meet with some of Egypt's
prominent women activists.
Schedule highlights
2. (SBU) The First Lady's schedule will include events in
both Cairo and Alexandria. Key components of the Cairo stop
include a joint TV taping with Mrs. Mubarak of Egypt's
Arabic-language version of Sesame Street (Alam Sim-sim),
interviews with U.S. morning show hosts against the backdrop
of the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids of Giza, a lunch hosted
by Mrs. Mubarak for leading women on establishment NGOs, a
visit to a "one room girls' school" designed to bring girls
who have been denied educational opportunity back to school,
an Embassy community "meet and greet," and an Embassy-hosted
event with leading reform-oriented women. The First Lady's
visit to Cairo, home to almost 20 million of Egypt's 72
million inhabitants, will receive wide coverage and provide
her with a snapshot of educational and women's issues facing
Egyptian society.
3. (SBU) The First Lady's second day will focus on
Alexandria, Egypt's "second city" with its rich Mediterranean
history. The First Lady will visit a secondary school and
the Alexandria Library before departing Egypt.
Suzanne Mubarak
3. (SBU) Suzanne Mubarak is an active and very public first
lady. She will be a gracious hostess. Her many public
appearances in support of charitable causes, including
frequent overseas trips for international conferences, get
prominent play in the Egyptian media and she wields
considerable clout in domestic politics. This is
particularly true when it comes to promoting education and
literacy, issues also supported by President Mubarak.
4. (SBU) Mrs. Mubarak's primary areas of interest focus on
girls' education, women's rights, literacy, social welfare,
and health care. She is the head of the Egyptian Red
Crescent Society (similar to the American Red Cross), the
National Council for Women, and the National Council on
Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM), among myriad other titles.
As the President's wife, she takes on high-profile causes.
Recently, she took a lead role in getting the large, upper
class suburb of Heliopolis (where she and President Mubarak
live) spruced up for the neighborhood's 100th anniversary
5. (SBU) With a particular emphasis on women's and
children's issues, Mrs. Mubarak has attended the 1995 Women's
conference in Beijing, headed the Egyptian delegation to a
special UN session on Women in 2000, joined prominently in
the 2001 Arab Women's summit, participated in the 1990 World
Summit on Children, and has sponsored many literacy and
education related programs in Egypt. She also has actively
supported peace initiatives, to include humanitarian efforts
in support of the Palestinians, including sponsoring caravans
of basic food supplies during the height of the intifada.
6. (SBU) Mrs. Mubarak is Christian, while her husband is
Muslim. She has two children: the single Gamal (in his early
40's) who is the head of the ruling National Democratic
Party's Policies Committee and an older son, Alaa who focuses
on business interests. Married (to former UNICEF official
Heidi Rasekh), Alaa has not been involved in politics. His
two sons are President Mubarak's only grandchildren.
Cairo sites
7. (SBU) In Cairo, the First Lady will be greeted by
Suzanne Mubarak at President Mubarak's official palace for a
short courtesy call before proceeding to a joint taping of
Egypt's Arabic language TV version of Sesame Street, "Alam
Simsim." The program, which was launched with USAID support
in 1997, is extremely popular in Egypt and is rebroadcast
around the Arab world. One of the program's principle aims
is to promote literacy. Mrs. Mubarak appeared on the program
in 2003, reading a book to one of the muppet-like characters.
8. (SBU) After appearing on U.S. TV shows, Mrs. Bush will
be hosted at the historic Mena House Hotel adjacent to the
Pyramids. Egyptian Guests at the lunch will include female
representatives of the boards of various non-Governmental
organizations that Mrs. Mubarak has taken a leading role in
promoting. After lunch Mrs. Mubarak will accompany The First
Lady to the Abu Sir Girls' School. This school, established
by the NCCM, is part of a country-wide effort to provide
girls in rural areas the opportunity to attend school. The
schools use modern curriculum, versus the standard
memorization used in many Egyptian schools and bring girls of
different ages together in one classroom with the goal of
reintegrating them into public secondary schools at age 14.
9. (SBU) The First Lady will also participate in an Embassy
community meet-and-greet and an Embassy-hosted event for
leading women involved in reform in Egypt. These women,
representing a wide cross-section of society are involved in
projects ranging from political reform to education.
Alexandria sites
10. (SBU) In Alexandria the primary stop will be at the
Library, known as the "Bibliotheca Alexandrina." The
library's inspiration is the ancient library built by Ptolemy
I in ancient Alexandria around 295 BC, which epitomized the
intellectual splendor of the classical world. In the words
of Mrs. Mubarak, the Bibliotheca "seeks nothing less than to
recapture the spirit of the ancient library of Alexandria,
center of knowledge and of ecumenism of the ancient world."
Opened in 2002, after a 28-year effort, and at cost of USD
220 million--mostly donated by foreign governments--the
building is an architectural and engineering marvel. It
includes museums and galleries, research facilities and
auditoria, as well as the largest reading room in the world,
the size of New York's Grand Central Station. Director
Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank Vice President, has
used the Library to host reform conferences including two on
reform in the Arab world and seeks to foster its image as a
"clearing house of progressive ideas." He has an ambitious
agenda of projects but funding remains a key issue: although
the library's shelves are designed to hold eight million
volumes, they currently have only 350,000.
11. (SBU) The First Lady will also visit a secondary school
which is part of the Egyptian Government's efforts to give
local communities more power over education. This pilot
school, part of a USAID-funded project, supports modern
teaching methods and greater input from parents and community
leaders into the education process, has the potential to
serve as a model throughout the Arab World.
Civil society issues facing Egypt
12. (SBU) Egypt claims a proud history of developing
democratic institutions, such as an elected parliament
(People's Assembly and Shura Council, although two-thirds of
the latter's membership are appointed) and an independent
judiciary. Yet, the public is becoming significantly more
vocal about demands for more open governance. Recent street
protests are departing from the traditional focus on disdain
for U.S. policies in Israel or Iraq and rather energetically
pointing to the need for domestic political reform.
President Mubarak's decision to amend the constitution to
allow for competitive presidential elections, which has been
endorsed by the parliament and is on the agenda for a May 25
referendum, has met with a mix of praise and calls for more
meaningful reform. The decision opens a new door in a nation
which has never directly elected its leader. Opposition
figures, however, point to "high hurdles" governing the
process of registering candidates.
13. (SBU) The Egyptian government, in trying to strike a
balance between demands for political reform and ensuring
stability, has stated that it will not permit public
demonstrations to turn violent; many would argue that the
government is already too restrictive in regulating
demonstrations. The government's perceived constraints on
opening the political process too quickly include concerns
that religiously oriented groups, particularly the powerful
Muslim Brotherhood (outlawed but partially tolerated), might
take advantage of that process for their own purposes. The
tension between public desire for more openness and the need
for stability will continue to feature in the political
dialogue in Cairo.
14. (SBU) Some specific benchmarks that the U.S. would
welcome are revocation of the emergency law which has been in
effect for decades, participation of international monitors
in the upcoming elections (to help bestow international
legitimacy on the process), expanded religious freedom for
all faiths, and greater latitude for NGO's to actively foster
civil society and promote broader participation in governance.
Economic and regional context
15. (SBU) In spite of increased public interest in domestic
politics this spring, the primary concern of most Egyptians
continues to be their economic well being. Egypt's new Prime
Minister, who assumed office last July and is visiting the
U.S. May 14-20, has embarked on a series of economic reform
measures that are designed to boost Egypt's prospects for a
prosperous future. Ongoing reforms include changes in
customs regulations and the corporate tax code, each require
a concerted effort to fully implement here in Egypt.
Business people hope that the long term benefits of these
reforms will put Egypt on a stronger economic footing; Egypt
is also hopeful that negotiations for a free trade agreement
with the U.S. are on the near horizon. While working to
improve the broad economic parameters which drive prosperity,
the Egyptian government is also reluctant to reduce subsidies
on basic commodities for its vast population; the people have
come to expect a certain "boost" from the government and many
will continue to judge the success of the regime on
short-term pocketbook issues.
16. (SBU) The Palestinian issue is the major regional
political issue influencing Egyptian thinking. Since
President Sadat's courageous decision to visit Jerusalem in
1977, Egypt has been more engaged with both sides of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict than any other regional player.
President Mubarak and his cabinet maintain an active dialogue
with Israeli counterparts and look for practical ways to
bring security to the Palestinian territories. In the public
political psyche, the Palestinian issue is as much a domestic
concern as a foreign policy issue - perceived grievances of
the Palestinian population resonate deeply in Egypt and the
Arab world.
Educational concerns
17. (SBU) Education is an area in which Egypt faces the
daunting task of preparing over 600,000 young people annually
to enter the workforce. The sheer numbers of school children
nearly overwhelm an education system that many Egyptians
agree needs extensive modernization. Large portions of the
national curriculum, despite recent efforts at modernization,
remain woefully out of date and the public education system
is plagued by drastic resource shortfalls, a serious capacity
deficit in its teaching corps, overcrowded and dilapidated
facilities, and pervasive corruption. Experts agree that
this system leaves Egyptian graduates ill equipped to compete
in the global marketplace. USAID's mission in Egypt contains
a substantial program to address Egypt's educational needs.
The First Lady will be visiting two schools assisted by USAID
in a "pilot schools" program that aims to introduce an
entirely new model for public education in Egypt.
18. (SBU) Egypt has a tradition of strong women in
leadership positions that dates back to Pharonic times. The
First Lady will be meeting with many of Egypt's most
influential women, many of whom may suggest that Egypt's
treatment of women is on par with more developed countries.
However, international studies continue to document the
serious challenges confronting Egyptian women, including
credible estimates which put female illiteracy as high as 60
percent. Improvements in the delivery of quality education
goes hand in hand with the development of a more robust role
for women in Egypt's future.
Impact of the visit
19. (SBU) The First Lady's visit to Egypt will reinforce
U.S. support for the critical issues of education and
literacy, will underline our commitment to the region, and
will present a positive image of U.S. involvement in the Arab
World. Mrs. Mubarak is looking forward to hosting the visit,
and the Egyptian Press will devote considerable coverage to
the two-day visit.
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